Why the farming future looks brighter

It was striking that, during the general election, all political parties woke up to why farming matters. This was not always the case. You only have to go back 10 years to a time when farming was seen, at best, as a rather embarrassing inconvenience: animal-disease outbreaks cost Government money and credibility, food surpluses still played on the memory, and accusations of environmental damage were rife. There was an unspoken assumption that a ‘smaller agriculture’ would be less risk-we could always import more and, if this was from developing countries, that would be a bonus.

Contrast that with incoming Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman’s first statement that she looks forward to the challenges of the role, ‘in particular, increasing production from British agriculture’. It’s unlikely that any Minister since Peter Walker in 1979 could have said that. Farming is now a strategically vital industry, at the heart of the challenges the world and this country face in coming years.

Food security has become an issue, for reasons that are now well rehearsed: growing world populations and rising affluence, particularly in Asia, will mean that food production will have to increase by at least 70% in the next 40 years; probably, it will need to double, and some authorities, factoring in the need for renewable energy, put the figure higher than that.

These kinds of increases-even at the top end of the scale-are precisely what the world’s farmers have achieved in the past century. In normal times, there would be no real issue. But times are not normal. Consider these factors: according to most scientists, even if we can keep increases to within 2˚C, global warming will severely impact on the ability of large tracts of the world to produce; the separate, but related, issue of water availability will be critical. And investment in agricultural research and development (R&D), which underpinned previous leaps in productivity, has been at a historic low in most of the world for the past 25 years.

Water critical

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Two recent pieces of research starkly illustrate the scale of the challenge: the WWF states that, because of water scarcity, 700 million people are now, in effect, water-stressed-by 2025, this is predicted to rise to a staggering two-thirds of the world’s population. And Humboldt University in Berlin calculates that the EU, now a substantial net importer of food, is relying on the output of 35 million ‘virtual hectares’ in the rest of the world to meet its needs-equivalent to the land area of Germany.

As its study concludes, although it may be desirable that poor countries contribute more to feeding themselves, the reality is that their food imports are likely to quintuple by 2030. The food needs of the world can only be met when the rich countries produce more and not less, as is sometimes argued.

There’s still a tendency in this country to regard farmers as land managers rather than businessmen, but, against the above context, British agriculture should have a bright future. We have a good structure, and a history of innovation. The UK seems likely to be less affected than most by global warming. Domestic and global demand is certain to increase. This is an industry with an assured market, which stands ready to play its full part in economic recovery.

So what do we need to make this vision a reality? First, agricultural markets look promising, but are certain to be more volatile and, in the short term, British farmers need help to ride out this volatility. Although routinely vilified by politicians whose views have been shaped by past realities, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is actually, in its current form, the best vehicle anyone has yet devised to allow farmers to focus on the market at the same time as providing a safety net when prices are cyclically low.

Further reform of the CAP is inevitable, but it’s essential that our new Government engages in this negotiation constructively and pragmatically, with the interests of productive farming at its heart. As a farmer, I would much prefer to live without public support. If that is what governments want, they should help us get there, in particular by making the food chain function more equitably, with clearer labelling for consumers and curbs on abuse of power by dominant players. Spending cuts are inevitable and Defra will not be exempt, but anything that impairs the competitiveness of British farming should be ruled out. R&D is, in many ways, an easy target, but it should be the last item to be jettisoned.

A decade ago, at the nadir of farming’s fortunes, Government policy began to encourage farmers away from production, either by diversification into other enterprises or by incentives for ‘public goods’ such as landscape and habitats. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back, but this isn’t a blueprint for environmental irresponsibility: the NFU’s watchword is ‘produce more, impact less’.

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